Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Duds, gaffes, scandal, foul language and inspirational leadership: a year that had it all

Thursday 29 December 2005 01:00

There was the usual star-studded line up of contenders for my City oscars this year, so for those who go away empty handed, remember, it is the taking part which counts, not the winning.

Without further ado, on to the first award, which like the others has been selected by an eminent panel of peer group business leaders. Conrad Black has claimed the prize for Scoundrel of the Year for two years in a row for what an internal inquiry called "self righteous and aggressive looting" of Hollinger, one time owner of The Daily Telegraph. He should by rights be up for a third bite at the cherry after recently being criminally charged over the affair.

But after much reflection, the panel has decided to disqualify him, this on the grounds of his rudeness last time around in writing directly to The Independent declining the award and vigorously protesting his innocence.

This was judged as a deliberate attempt to bring the awards into disrepute, so by way of punishment, he and his wife, Barbara, receive the Neil and Christina Hamilton prize for brass necking it out. When it comes to revelry in their new-found notoriety, they are hard to beat. Only Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, came close, but to him goes instead the Harry Houdini award for escapology.

While his former City Slicker columnists face jail, Mr Morgan sails blissfully on. The purchase of large quantities of Viglen shares the day before the Slickers tipped them in his newspaper is dismissed as all just a bizarre coincidence.

Lord Black has described the charges against him as "One massive smear job from A to Z", while Lady Black, reflecting on the vicissitudes of life, observes that "it's not pleasant to be the object of derision on three continents", and more poignant still: "Reversal of fortune is this rich bitch's reality". Expect her to star some time soon in I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

It was a tough choice, but in the end the judges opted for John Towers, head of the so-called Phoenix Four, which ran Rover for five miserable years, as Scoundrel of the Year. While thousands lost their jobs Mr Towers and his henchmen managed, apparently legally, to trouser some £40m from the business for themselves. Unrepentant, Mr Towers said: "I don't feel guilty about the process we have been through. Wind back the clock five years and I would have done the same."

The judges commented that rarely had there been a more deserving recipient.

Competition for most profane statement of the year was fierce, with an apparently ever growing number of otherwise respectable financiers and business leaders willing to let loose the "f" word in public. The choicest of bad language was preserved for Court 55 of the Royal Courts of Justice, where famous millionaires with apparently more money than sense were suing each other over the collapse of The Gadget Shop.

* The "f" word was the least of it in a case that pitted Jon Wood, a senior trader at UBS, and Peter Wilkinson, a founder of Freeserve, against the Scottish entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter and his partner, Chris Gorman. The luckless Mr Gorman found himself branded by Mr Wilkinson "Billy Big Bollocks", while Mr Wilkinson was called "a fucking soft git", by Mr Wood.

Yet it was in the use of the "c" word that that the case broke new ground in linguistic elegance. At one stage Mr Wood was required to read aloud a witness statement about a heated Gadget Shop board meeting in which Mr Wilkinson is alleged to have called fellow directors "a bunch of c***s". When Mr Wood said he felt uncomfortable using the "c" word, Mr Justice Warren, the presiding judge, said "I've got no problem with you using the c*** word in court". Modern times indeed.

The competition for sacking of the year was surprisingly thin on the ground. Mike Bailey, chief executive of Compass, might have qualified, but he hasn't yet gone, despite presiding over a calamitous series of profits warnings and a corporate scandal to boot. Sorry Mike. Better luck next time. In the absence of home-grown talent, the judges were forced to go abroad. Yet the sacking of Werner Seifert as chief executive of Deutsche Börse, is up there with the best of them.

Under Mr Seifert, Deutsche Börse had become one of the best performing shares in the Dax 30, but he hadn't realised how much the world had changed. When he bid for the London Stock Exchange, it should have been the crowning glory of his career. Instead, shareholders, led by Anglo-Saxon hedge funds, turned on him and demanded the money be handed back rather than spent on the LSE. Mr Seifert paid for the misjudgement with his job as one leading German politician likened the new bread of activist investor which was descending on Germany to a biblical plague of locusts.

Most ridiculous re-branding exercise goes this year to the Government, which attempted to re-christen the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry, or penis for short. This was the Prime Minister's idea. It took Alan Johnson six days to ditch it, which must rate as one of the most promising starts ever for a new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He then went on to spoil it all by announcing that public sector workers could retire at 40 on full pensions with private medical insurance thrown in for good measure.

The judges had no difficulty in naming Wm Morrison Supermarkets corporate disaster of the year. This has turned out to be a textbook study in how not to do a takeover and subsequent integration, and for Morrison's founder, the eponymous Sir Ken, an unfolding personal tragedy. For Sir Ken, the dream was to transform an already highly successful regional chain of supermarkets into a new national force.

The acquisition of the ailing Safeway group seemed to offer the opportunity he craved, but instead it has turned into a wide-awake nightmare.

Far from making three, one and one have come to equal precisely nothing, with all the group's profits mysteriously disappearing. Sir Ken, it seemed, simply wasn't up to the job, and I doubt he'll get the chance he wants to see the group through to better times.

* The Cedric the Pig memorial prize for corporate greed is shared jointly this year by Lord Hollick, former chief executive of United Business Media, and Sir Gerry Robinson, former chairman of Granada. Lord Hollick was awarded, and for a while refused to give up, a £250,000 "handover" payment for finding a successor. Sir Gerry meanwhile demanded an astonishing £57m in free shares as a downpayment for joining Rentokil Initial as executive chairman. Sir Gerry was predictably sent away with a flea in his ear, and an unrepentant Lord Hollick, who thought be deserved the payment, was eventually persuaded to give the money back.

So finally on to the only serious award, which is for lifetime achievement in business and finance. With such titans of the City as Sir John Bond, chairman of HSBC, to compete with, the bar is an extraordinarily high one. Even so, few would quarrel with the choice of David Jones, who bows out in May as chairman of the high street retailer Next.

The business achievement he represents stands on its own merits. From basket case just 15 years ago with a market capitalisation of just £25m, Mr Jones has made Next one of Britain's major forces in fashion retailing with a stock market value of nearly £4bn and a place in the FTSE 100.

What makes this achievement more remarkable still is that for more than twenty years now, Mr Jones has been suffering from Parkinson's Disease, a degenerative disorder which renders the victim progressively disabled. Until recently, Mr Jones has kept his condition secret from all but his closest family and friends, being understandably fearful that he would be judged on his disabilities rather than his achievements.

To overcome such adversity and achieve such heights takes huge personal courage and determination. Achievement in business doesn't come any more inspiring than this.

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